In the run up to Red Hook’s 2012 Bicentennial, it is fitting to recall Egbert Benson, for whom the Historical Society is named. As James Kent, Benson’s student, friend and colleague wrote of his mentor, “This great and good man lived to survive all his contemporaries, and seems to have died almost unknown and forgotten by the profession which he once so greatly adorned.”
Thanks to Clare O’Neill Carr, to whom we are indebted for her incomparable A Brief History of Red Hook, we know a great deal about Benson, whom she profiled in a 2001 issue of the Historical Society Newsletter. Following are excerpts from her article.
Benson was just 25 years old, the son of an old New York Dutch family, when he came to set up a law practice in Red Hook in 1772, fresh from an apprenticeship in his native New York City. His relative, Tryntje Benson, had married into the Hoffman family in Tivoli. He had most likely visited her as a boy and young man and become familiar with Red Hook. It is from the Hoffman home in Tivoli that he wrote to clients and conducted his practice, when he moved here just before the war.
It appeared he never really had time to settle down and establish himself in Red Hook, a situation that concerned him, but not enough to prevent him from jumping wholeheartedly into the war effort when he was needed. There always seemed to be a shortage of money. He moved from New York to Red Hook because he thought New York too crowded with lawyers….
Benson spent the war years in Red Hook, extensively involved in the Revolutionary effort, helping to organize the first American resistance to the British…
Benson was a Patriot who was in charge of the local war effort in Dutchess County and the state’s first Attorney General. As Red Hook’s first state Assemblyman, then U.S. Representative from Dutchess County and Westchester counties to the First and Second American Congress, he was responsible for development of much of early New York State law. He helped steer the adoption by New York State of our first United States Constitution and championed the all-important first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights….In 1794, he was appointed to the newly established position as the fifth Justice of the Supreme Court of the State of New York. He held that job for seven years. He was always referred to as Judge Benson after that. Always interested in history, Benson helped found the New York Historical Society in 1804, then served as its first president from 1805 to 1815.
James Kent leaves us a wonderful sketch of this old, very lively and very opinionated Patriot… “He remained through life an invincible bachelor, but there was nothing morose, nor ascetic about him. No one was more fond of society: no one enjoyed more, but always in an innocent & decorous degree, the pleasures of the table….(there was) not a more determined enemy of the potatoe; and luckless was the agriculturist who ventured to assert there was any nutriment in this much discussed esculent.”
Judge Benson died in 1833 at age 87.